Plot: This is a charming and exquisitely written reimagining of the Orpheus myth with more than one important incongruity. In this version, the Orpheus character, John, has somehow lost his wife and he and his 10-year-old son, Sam, struggle to cope as their lives trudge on. Living on an isolated farm in Maine, the two have fallen into a dull, if somewhat idiosyncratic, daily routine that holds their lives together, until one day the postman delivers a book that changes their lives in ways they could never have foretold as the boundaries between reality and imagination, between waking and dreaming, dissolve completely.
Prose/Style: The language of this imaginative novel is wonderfully rich, and sentences flow with uncommon grace.
Originality: This is an adventure story full of utterly impossible events and utterly possible psychological truths interwoven so expertly that the reader is happy to suspend disbelief and go along on the journey. This reimagining of the Orpheus myth, illustrated with excellent woodcuts by Ellen Raquel LeBow, examines questions of life, death, and survivorship in the gentlest possible way.
Character Development/Execution: At its heart, this novel is about change, about what it takes to rekindle desire and a will to live after a death that could easily envelop those who most loved the person. Told from Sam’s point of view, the story examines the changes he must endure and instigate in order to achieve the growth that will save him and his father from fading to gray in their grief.
Date Submitted: July 01, 2021
Though aimed at middle grade readers, Orpheus Rising at times feels like a mature philosophical contemplation of death, steeped in magical realism. There are also moments of true terror, and some of the imagery— coupled with the book’s fantastical yet ominous illustrations—might be unsuitable for readers who scare easily. At the same time, the stakes can be almost comically low, as when an enchanted object renders any conflict avoidable. Elements of the plot require a thorough understanding of the rules of poker and the intricacies of sailing.
Real emotion powers Sam and John’s adventure, their journey as much about the relationship between father and son as it is finding Sam’s mother. Sam and John begin the novel torn apart by her absence, which John spent his entire childhood refusing to explain. Their quest to save her teaches each about the power of honesty, trust, and love. Lee’s vivid imagination shines through each chapter of their quest, and his quirky characters will keep readers who appreciate fabulist adventure hooked throughout.
Takeaway:Imaginative and emotional, this underworld adventure offers thrills, chills, and insightful lessons.
Great for fans of: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Roald Dahl.
Design and typography: B+
Marketing copy: B-
Orpheus Rising: By Sam And His Father, John, With Some Help From A Very Wise Elephant Who Likes to Dance
Lance Lee; illustrated by Ellen Raquel LeBow
312 pages, (hardcover) $23.95, 978-0-578790558
(Reviewed: July, 2021)
Lance Lee’s fairytale—essentially a whimsical reimagining of the Orphic myth—follows 10-year- old Sam and his father into an imaginary otherworld where they attempt to locate and save Sam’s beloved, deceased mother.
Sam lives with his father in the countryside, where—when he’s not being homeschooled—he’s kept busy doing chores, including milking the cow, collecting eggs from the chickens, and managing the garden. As busy as he is, Sam’s life is empty. His writer father John is mired in a soul-crushing depression (living a “gray existence”), and whenever Sam asks where his mother is, John won’t give him an answer.
When a mysterious blank book arrives in the mail and Sam draws in it, his drawings inexplicably become reality, and Sam and his father, with the help of a dancing elephant dressed in an Edwardian suit and matching vest, set out on an epic quest to bring his mother back from beyond the grave.
His mother is in a hellish place called Dread City; to get there, the unlikely trio must survive numerous challenges, such as crossing a nightmarish sea of faces and escaping marauding centaurs.
The story’s lyrical writing style and surreal nature make for an effortlessly page-turning read, although a few sequences run too long. The lessons the characters learn during the journey are also noteworthy, as father and son come to understand the healing capacity of honesty and trust, and embrace their own inner strengths.
Although tonally comparable to Frank. L. Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the raw emotional intensity and thematic force is the story’s real power. “A life lived without love,” says Sam’s father, “without even the desire for love, is a life without meaning.”
This is an action-packed, heartfelt romp through a young boy’s imagination, complemented with striking illustrations.Think of it as L. Frank Baum falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole into the afterlife. It’s sure to entertain readers of all ages.
BY LANCE LEE ‧ RELEASE DATE: OCT. 5, 2021
Based on the myth of Orpheus, Lee’s fantasy novel follows a boy’s quest with his father to retrieve his mother from the afterlife.
Ten-year-old Sam lives with his father, John, in an unquestioned, unvarying routine; “They simply thought of this gray existence as life.” When a blank book is mailed to them, however, Sam discovers that whatever he draws and writes in it becomes real, like when he sketches a lavish tent inhabited by a singing, dancing, wise elephant in Edwardian dress whom he names Lepanto. Playing cards with Lepanto, Sam sees a vision of his mother, who’s whispering, “Come and get me,” although—as he finally learns from John—she died years ago. Encouraged by Lepanto to trust his no-longer-blank book and his imagination, Sam determines to bring his mother back from the Dread City, telling his disbelieving father, “I’m shaping events. And I say we go.” Although Sam and John can count on help from the book and Lepanto, their long journey through the Far Land of Fear is beset with dangers, like agents of the Dread City who want to drag them into despair. Can they succeed where Orpheus failed? In his debut children’s book, poet and playwright Lee writes a wildly imaginative, entertaining adventure story with deep foundations both in the lush realm of mythos and poignant human emotions. Beyond that, Lee dares to give Sam’s quest an ending that takes seriously the Elephant’s insistence on the reality of imagination, making the story even more powerful. In her debut book, artist LeBow provides woodcutlike illustrations with rich blacks, curving white lines, and a remarkable, charged sense of mythic power that marries well with the novel.
An extraordinarily beautiful, touching adventure that can stand with the classics of children’s literature.
This will be published in the October Midwest Book Review:
Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
Orpheus Rising By Sam And His Father, John / With The Help Of A Very Wise Elephant/ Who Likes To Dance
Orpheus Rising By Sam And His Father, John / With The Help Of A Very Wise Elephant/ Who Likes To Dance is a modern rendition of the Orpheus myth. It blends philosophical reflection with an inspection of loss and whimsy, as experienced by ten-year-old Sam.
While readers might think this translates to a children's book, be advised that the parable and meaning of Orpheus Rising is designed to appeal not just to kids, but many an adult reader, who will find its special blend of fantasy, philosophical inspection, and adventure equally engaging.
Many vivid scenes are presented in the course of this epic journey, as when Lepanto, Sam, and John's yacht sails through an ocean of floating faces..."faces of every imaginable variety dotting the ocean, round, flat, wet, floating faces that kept up a continuous chatter unless disturbed by the yacht. “Fine day,” one said. “I’ve seen worse,” another replied. “Beautiful.” “Ohh… How I like to crest!” “I like the troughs, myself.” “Never down but up.” “Never up but down.”
“Fine weather.” “You’re looking well.”
As ocean fades to desert journeys, evading pursuers, and navigating strange worlds, readers of all ages are treated to a blend of poetic imagery, nonstop action, and adventure centered on the unlikely relationship between a well-dressed dancing elephant and his charges.
Lance Lee's story is hard to easily categorize—and that is one of its charms. Fantasy readers will appreciate the whimsical world he creates, poetry enthusiasts will relish the metaphors and descriptions in prose that form the backbone of adventure, and children (as well as adults) will value the multifaceted action that keeps them guessing about relationships, outcomes, and the story's outcome.
With all these elements intersecting in a satisfyingly vivid manner, it's easy to highly recommend Orpheus Rising By Sam And His Father, John / With The Help Of A Very Wise Elephant/ Who Likes To Dance as a standout from the crowd, even if its exuberant story defies simple categorization. This translates to an expansive audience who will appreciate its charm.
Reviewed By Pikasho Deka for Readers’ Favorite
If you love to read epic fantasy adventure stories, grab yourself a copy of Lance Lee's Orpheus Rising. Ten-year-old Sam lives a humdrum life alongside his father, John. Feeling isolated and lonely, Sam and John start having nightmares where they share the same scenario. After the newspaper delivery man, Mr. Nicholas, hands over a mysterious book to John, Sam discovers that whatever he draws or writes in the book comes true. When a dancing elephant in an Edwardian suit comes to life, Sam and John realize that they live in Sam's imagination. Sam names the elephant Lepanto, and the three of them undertake an epic quest to rescue Sam's mother, Madelyn, from Dread City while traversing a Far Land of Fear. But they must brave an Upside-Down ocean, a Sea of Faces, a riddle-loving snake, and much more.
Author Lance Lee's whimsical fantasy adventure tale blurs the line between imagination and reality, enchanting you through a wide range of emotions. Orpheus Rising fills you with a sense of wonder and awe, deftly showcasing the importance of believing in your dreams and pushing yourself to attain them. The contrast between Sam's and John's personalities makes for an interesting dynamic. While John, at times, seems to succumb to the struggles of their journey, Sam continues to carve himself a path out of sheer will and vivid imagination. The illustrations by Ellen Raquel LeBow provide an added visual aesthetic to the story. I thoroughly enjoyed Orpheus Rising, and I highly recommend it to young adults.
Reviewed By Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers’ Favorite
Life is a journey. No one understands this better than ten-year-old (almost eleven) Sam and his father, John. They are destined for a journey of widely imaginative proportions as the two set off to rescue Sam’s mother, Madelyn, from “Far Land of Fear” and “Dread City.” Could this journey take them to the afterlife, a dangerous, fearful world where only those who have died can venture and never return? Written for the adventurous and imaginative reader of all ages, Lance Lee’s Orpheus Rising is a legend, a mythological adventure set in the modern world. In Greek mythology, Orpheus mourns the tragic death of his wife, Eurydice. In his grief, he ventures into Hades (hell) to reclaim her. Taking this theme and plot into a modern setting, the author has expertly woven a tale of grief leading to fantastical adventures that parallel the original Orpheus legend. Sam and his father, John, are grief-stricken over the loss of Sam’s mother and they can barely function without her. Following dreams (that they both share), a mysterious and magical book, and the overpowering desire to restore Sam’s mother to their lives, the father-son duo go on almost unbelievable adventures, not so different from other classics like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Using interesting number associations, like the ever-powerful number three, incorporating complex, multidimensional words like ubiquitous, and the constant reference to time (perhaps like the number three this is a biblical reference that stipulates there is a time (season) for everything), this book reads like a classical era legend, a myth of many proportions. It’s also something like the complex card game of poker; each plays an educated move with multiple strategic elements. And, then there’s the Book – the mysterious book that arrives in the mail and ultimately leads them on unfathomable adventures, good and bad, until they find the ultimate treasure: Sam’s mother. The Book, another biblical reference to the Book that leads readers on adventures that are both good and bad? Ultimately, the story and plot, driven by one specific goal, are powered by love. Lance Lee’s Orpheus Rising is a compassionate and fascinating tale of mythological proportions.
SPR (Self Publishing Review) has published a serious essay on myself, and Orpheus Rising formally out this October. Here it is:
An Interview with Lance Lee: Author of Orpheus Rising
Lance Lee’s poetry is published widely in American and English journals. Elemental Natures (2020), his seventh poetry book, includes a selection of work spanning more than thirty years of poetry, art, and essay. Seasons of Defiance (2010), placed as a finalist in the 8th National USA Book Awards. Orpheus Rising(2021) is the first of a series of children’s works he has planned for the near future.
He has also published The Death and Life of Drama and A Poetics for Screenwriters, plus plays and a novel, Second Chances. A past Creative Writing Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, his home is in Los Angeles although he spends several months annually with his family in London. He was instrumental in forming the State Park system in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Tell us about your book.
Orpheus Rising is a middle grade epic fantasy quest that is a retelling of the classic Orpheus myth, albeit in a children’s book contemporary format and with a successful outcome. That said: I don’t write anything for particular age categories – my imagination works in its own, idiosyncratic ways, and only once a work is done do I look for whatever bracket in which it might fit, if that’s at all relevant. Although Orpheus Rising fits in the middle grade category because its hero is 10 going on 11, I really wrote it for all ages within the constraints of such a hero’s imagination. I believe a writer must follow his inspiration with integrity wherever that takes him or her, with it understood you aren’t being arbitrary but are well read in the field you are writing in, too.
Why did you choose to self-publish?
My longtime editor at the then Birch Brook Press in upper New York had a stroke, and closed his press. I could have gone through a firm like iUniverse, which I used for my previous book, Elemental Natures, my selected poetry, but after dealing with them I preferred to go ahead myself through IngramSpark where I have complete control over all aspects of the publication. I used the services of Kate Cooper (Leopard Website Design) for the intricacies of text/cover formatting and preparation, and could trust my own experience to function as my own editor. IngramSpark provides printing, circulation, worldwide distribution, and crucially, accounting.
Would you self-publish again?
Yes. There’s a learning curve – and a lot of work you must do yourself in place of a publishing firm doing these things for you, like: submitting for reviews, advertising, as well as all the elements of book preparation, design, and publication. But, frankly, it has been fun.
What do you think are the main pitfalls for indie writers?
Isolation. Not seeking expert help where you lack a skill yourself, like, say, editing. Not taking the time to reach out to useful elements of social media, bloggers, advance reviewers. Stinting expense, which means stinting your project. Orpheus Rising required an illustrator, although far from a picture book, and I searched out and paid for an artist of my choice, as I have done on another children’s book I am presently working on. Lacking sheer stick-to-it-ness. Use one of the many publishing packages if you’re not ready to face these things yourself.
As a writer, what is your schedule? How do you get the job done?
Ah, well… On some projects I have been a morning person. Mysteriously, on others, I have been an afternoon person. Rarely, a night owl. It varies as you can see project by project. I have had to work in the kitchen surrounded by noise: I have had to work in absolute silence. Hemingway with a prior career as a journalist may have set himself so many words a day: I have never been able to work with such an artificial constraint. You have to find your own way, project by project, and stick to it. Once underway, the work generates its own time demands and obsessiveness. One ‘rule’ I have found to be true is that we each of us seem to be good for about four hours of really intense creative work: after that, it’s wasted energy, and you need to turn to something else. Which leads into—
How do you deal with writer’s block?
—dealing with the gaps between work. Much of my time has been spent writing poetry, and earlier, plays. There are occasional dry spells. For instance, after publishing a volume of poetry, the following year is often quite dry. Earlier in my career, these periods worried me: how will I ever write a poem (play) (novel) (story) again? Doing so seemed incomprehensible. How had I done one of these before? It seemed a mysterious, lost skill. In time I learned to trust myself more, as invariably in my case the quiet periods weren’t barren but quietly fertile as somewhere within I sensed my way towards a different thread of experience/story/poems to explore. Inevitably some quite casual or unexpected experience or insight, even a movement of music, would trigger the next burst of activity.
Tell us about the genre you wrote in, and why you chose to write this sort of book.
I wrote an epic fantasy, a quest story, within the framework of a 10 going on 11-year-old’s imagination, combining a realism of motivation and relationships with fantastic adventures and an animal spirit guide — or a spirit guide in an imagined animal shape. In an earlier novel (Second Chances), one based on a real incident, the lead character was a similarly aged, precocious girl: I seem to have a feel for such youthful characters, although I’ve dealt with others as far from these as Rasputin or the last fox in Los Angeles.
Orpheus Rising wasn’t ‘chosen’ and planned. I found myself thinking about the classic Orpheus myth and one day imagined my hero, Sam, in his room, with three hanging figures, a dancing elephant on a trapeze, a large schooner, and a sea dragon with a too-large head. These turned out to be predictive, and once I put it all, in my mind, in a context of a loss to be undone, writing was more a case of following the story than making it up, as I pursued it day by day.
I should also add it took decades to write. An early draft, much liked by friends, sat idle for years. One day I took it up again, and fleshed it out. Then it sat again. Another day I took it out and streamlined it. Then it sat again. This pattern went on for a long time as I tried to get the right balance for the different strands of the story. Finally, three years ago I picked the manuscript up again, and saw my way through. Contrast this to the (rare) experience of discovering a draft of a poem is perfect the first time out, or a play ‘writes itself’ in three weeks. There is no predicting these things.
Who are your biggest writing inspirations and why?
This could be a very long answer, so I will make it short. Various authors have had a big influence on me, not in the sense I found myself writing like them, but in my realizing on reading them that I suffered from a constraint unnecessarily. My reaction to reading Neruda’s Macchu Picchu was: Ah! I can be that free! Or encountering Robinson Jeffers: I can ground my thought in natural imagery — so much for abstraction! Or from Whitman, I can sing in poetry! Lewis Carroll didn’t make me want to write about my own Alice, but made me realize: My imagination can go where it wants! And so on. Harold Bloom espoused a theory a writer had to kill off a predecessor in a Freudian sense to free himself (to put it very simply): mine has been the opposite. Encountering predecessors who have impacted me has been: freeing.
Why did you write about this particular subject?
Orpheus Rising I’ve described as a fantasy middle grade quest… Well, that makes it comprehensible to most readers. But it is in my mind a parable of what a family needs to overcome loss and to cohere despite all challenges. Perhaps that comes from the intricacies of my own family history, perhaps from an underlying sense of the love we need in our lives, perhaps from an underlying tragic sense, although Orpheus Rising ends happily because the heroes find what they need to succeed. I have long felt love is central to our lives, that they are barren without it: that love is a great force, even if so powerfully opposed by so many other forces like: greed for power, or egoism. But that day I thought about Orpheus descending to Hades to try and reclaim his lost love I instinctively felt I’d found the right story pattern to tell a story about the redemptive power of love.
What’s next for you as an author?
I’m working on another, shorter children’s story I plan to bring out next spring, with illustrations from Meilo So, the noted British illustrator. I have a number of such ‘tales’ in mind, about 50-60 pages in length for the next few years. There is also a large family history/memoir I may be ready to proceed with too, which has had something of the checkered pattern of writing as Orpheus Rising, often picked up and as often dropped over a long period of time until finally ready…